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Wild Side: Fishing deep on the big lake

Carol Wilcox with a fine lake trout. Dan Wilcox photo

It's easy to write superlatives about Lake Superior. Immense, deep, wild, cold, and beautiful are words that readily come to mind.

Many people are attracted to the big lake to our north just to look at its clear water and bold shores. Lake Superior inspires contemplation.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

The Bayfield peninsula and the Apostle Islands area of Lake Superior north of Ashland are particularly beautiful. The Boundary Waters/Quetico Wilderness area in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario is an extensive forest area with many smaller lakes and rivers. In contrast, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is an immense area of shoreline, lake with forested wilderness islands and large expanses of water in between them.

Lake Superior has so much water in it that it is a giant heat sink. Spring along the lake shores is delayed while the lake absorbs heat from the sun. Fall is extended as the thermal flywheel of all that lake water keeps the air near the lake warm for several weeks longer than in nearby inland areas.

Lake Superior generates its own weather with sea breezes like the oceans, dense fog banks that can appear unexpectedly and lake effect snowstorms.

Unlike most inland lakes in our region, Lake Superior is a cold oligotrophic lake with low concentrations of nutrients and plankton. The algae, zooplankton, macroinvertebrates and fish are sparse. It's easy to see down 20 feet or more through the water.

On a warm summer day when we were anchored in Presque Isle Bay at Stockton Island in the Apostles, the top foot of the water was about 65 degrees, comfortable enough for swimming. I snorkeled around the bay for about half an hour and only saw one living thing, a small translucent smelt. There's an enormous volume of water in Lake Superior with relatively little biomass in it.

The low density of fish in Lake Superior doesn't mean that the lake isn't productive. The lake is big enough to support lots of fish that are specially adapted to the cold water. A number of whitefish species, sculpins, sticklebacks, several species of minnows, brook trout and lake trout are native fish species.

Brook trout and lake trout are really chars, related to Arctic char and bull char that occur farther north. Pacific salmon species like king salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon and rainbow trout (steelhead) have been stocked in the lake. The low density of fish and their deep water habitat makes them hard to find and catch.

Lake trout have been making a comeback in Lake Superior since the days of overfishing in the 1800s and invasion of sea lampreys in the 1920s after the Welland Canal opened. Sea lampreys are being controlled by poisoning the larvae in tributary streams and the fishery is now closely regulated. Lake trout grow slowly and don't reproduce until they are 5 to 7 years old. A 10-pound lake trout from Lake Superior may be 15 years old.

Friends of our Washburn friends invited us to go out fishing on Lake Superior with them a few weeks ago. We left Ashland at 7 o'clock in the morning, motored for about an hour out of Chequamegon Bay onto the lake and trolled east of Outer Island. The boat was equipped with a good depth finder and electric winches on the downriggers. We trolled big spoons, flashers and flies about 10 feet above the bottom in 90 to 130 feet of water. I had never fished that deep in fresh water before.

The lake was about as calm as I've seen it so we didn't rock and roll much at all. The captain and his buddy from Ashland kept up a constant banter of jokes. We caught a number of lake trout that hit decisively and fought hard. Carol landed the biggest one, a 31-inch beauty.

Lake trout flesh varies from white to orange between individual fish. They are excellent to eat. Back home, we brined and smoked the larger filets and marinated and grilled the smaller ones for some wonderful snacks and meals.

Now that we have had a taste of lake trout that we caught from the depths of Lake Superior, we'll have to try trolling off our sailboat. I already have some downriggers. The end of the boating season on Lake Superior is fast approaching, so that's something to look forward to for next year.e his own nature.

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